National parks close with government shutdown, VA stays open

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV/AP) -- The federal government is grinding to a halt Tuesday morning. Lawmakers in Washington could not come up with a deal.

At midnight, for the first time in more than 15 years, government agencies were ordered to shut down due to lack of funds.

As of Tuesday morning, national parks here in the Lowcountry were closed for business. The shutdown means places like Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie, Liberty Square and the Charles Pinckney Historic site will have to remain closed and furlough workers.

The shutdown affected Chip Campsen's business, Fort Sumter Tours. Usually, his boat "Spirit of the Lowcountry" would disembark from Liberty Square several times a day to visit Fort Sumter. But tourists arrived Tuesday to find out they could either get a refund or shift to a harbor tour.

"On the way to get our tickets, we found out it was shut down," said Janice Thomson, visiting the Lowcountry from San Antonia, Texas. "But I didn't think about the harbor tours being impacted."

On a typical weekday in October, his boat would carry around 100 passengers, he said. It only had about 20 passengers Tuesday.

"The Fort Sumter business is affected significantly because we can't drop the boats off at the port to visit," Campsen said.

He said it was too early to quantify how much money he was losing each day the sites were closed.

Patriots Point was still open but it was also affected; it shares parking with the boats that leave from there to get to Fort Sumter.

"Patriots Point receives a lot of impulsive buys from our visitors. Plus they charge for parking over there and that will have a big impact."

"We get about $200,000 a year from the Fort Sumter cruises, just from parking alone. That doesn't count those who will also tour our museum and shop at our gift shop," Patriots Point's Mac Burdette said.

Officials for the Department of Health and Environmental Control said the Women Infants and Children program was considered non-essential and would not receive federal funding. But, they said WIC clients should continue using their vouchers.

DHEC officials said a reserve fund will keep the program afloat until Oct. 15, but the disbursements would be stopped after that date unless the USDA provided further funding.

At Parris Island, officials said facilities and services that affect local service members, civilian employees, retirees, military families and visitors have been closed or suspended indefinitely.{}

Of the currently 442 civilian employees on Parris Island, 291 have been placed on furlough.

At the Army Corps of Engineers, several projects that have already been funded will continue ahead as planned through the week. However, if a budget bill is not passed before then, leaders will have to re-examine projects."Based on 'excepted' activities and an assessment of available funding, we are largely protected from furloughs this week," said Lt. Col. John T. Litz, Charleston District commander. "Although we look pretty good for this week, the impact of this shutdown is dynamic. As the shutdown continues and we begin to exhaust available funding, employees will be furloughed."

On Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, cutbacks have begun and officials said only essential civilian personnel would remain at work, including police, fire and EMS.

"Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort regrets the unfortunate outcome of the government shutdown. Our civilian Marines are highly valued members of the Air Station team. We truly appreciate their work, dedication and support they show to our Nation's military. Their efforts assist us in maintaining a constant state of readiness to remain America's 911 Force. Their absence from work will not go unnoticed.{} We hope there is a quick resolve to the shutdown, so our employees may return to work and we can return to operating at a normal capacity," said Col. Brian C. Murtha, Commanding Officer, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

Gov. Nikki Haley called the days leading up to the shutdown 'frustrating' to watch. Haley said President Obama needs to take responsibility and find a way to solve the impasse in Congress.

Rep. Jim Clyburn said he shared in the public's frustration.

"The House has the votes to pass a budget resolution with no strings attached and the Speaker will not bring it to the floor for a vote," Clyburn said. "The Tea-Party wing of the Republican party is holding the government hostage over a law which was enacted three years ago, has been vetted by the Supreme Court, and whose open enrollment begins today. That battle is over and has nothing to do with the current issue of keeping our government running. I don't like it that the President and the Senate agreed to the Republicans funding level, but I, and many of my fellow Democrats, are willing to vote on that compromise to live up to our responsibility of funding the federal government."

Haley also said the people would never allow a government shutdown in South Carolina. Haley is in the Lowcountry Tuesday for a conference on Kiawah Island.

Representative Mark Sanford said the fight comes down to a Constitutional issue on the Affordable Care Act.

"Our society has been held together for over 200 years in no small part due to the belief that our system was fair or equitable, yet the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has been anything but that. 1,200 businesses were exempted before the employer mandate was delayed, seven different areas of the bill were unilaterally delayed by the President, Members of Congress and their staffs were exempted...the list goes on, yet the individual mandate affecting all Americans remains, despite very real concerns about this law in its present form. The resolution I voted for tonight levels the playing field for individuals by giving everyone the delay that businesses and others have received," said Sanford.

"Government shutdowns are the bluntest of leverage points in politics and have occurred 17 times over the last 36 years they are a tool that most times remains best unused. However, in this particular case I'd argue that we have reached the point where it is necessary again to use every tool available to affect some sort of change to this law, given the very real Constitutional issues surrounding its implementation."

Officials with Sanford's Washington office and both his district offices, located in Mt. Pleasant and Beaufort, said they will remain open during the government shutdown, but at reduced staff levels.

Also staying open, is the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center.

Officials with the VA said Vet Centers, VBA Call Centers (except for education, compensation and pension claims processing and payments) as well as many other VA services will not be impacted by the potential lapse in appropriations.

Approximately 216 mission funded employees and 43 interns across SPAWAR Systems Center Atlantic (SSC Atlantic) will be affected. Thirty-five of those interns are here in Charleston.

Tommy Groves with SPAWAR said furloughs won't apply to the majority of the 2,600 employees in Charleston since they are a Navy Working Capital Fund (NWCF).

NWCFs are able to continue operating as long as they maintain a positive cash balance. If the government is shut down for an extended period of time, Groves said the situation will be reassessed.

Federal workers will also still have to report to work, but only for about four hours Tuesday.

Employees are limited to doing work related to the shutdown, including changing voicemail messages, posting an out-of-office message on email, securing work stations and documents and completing time cards.

According to the Associated Press, Environmental Protection Agency employees were told they can't work on "any projects, tasks, activities or respond to emails," including checking their emails from home on their smart phones.

Officials with the Housing and Urban Development Department told the AP it will close its offices at 1:30 p.m. Other agencies, such as the Labor Department, expect most employees to be gone by midday, but haven't set a specific time.

The AP reports federal workers won't see their pay affected right away. Employees can expect to be paid on schedule on Oct. 15 for hours worked from Sept. 22 through Sept. 30. They can also seek unemployment if the shutdown continues, depending on where they live.

The South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce is asking federal workers affected by the government shutdown to go online to see if they are eligible for UI benefits. You can visit their website and apply online here:

On the bright side, if you're a government employee with some newfound time on your hands, Patriots Point is offering a discounted admission fee. Throughout the government shutdown, Patriots Point will offer any federal employee who has been furloughed half-off their admission ticket when they show their federal ID.